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Steve Searfoss: Dog Lover, Empower Children with Kidventures

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Steve Searfoss cartoon image.

The Kidventure series focuses on children from fourth to seventh grade, with a reading age of eight to thirteen yearsSteve Searfoss aims to teach children about business, show negotiation in action, and show them that math can be fun through practical use! I love the interactive storytelling by Steve Searfoss, where children get the opportunity to solve challenges together with the characters in each story. 

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I have reviewed Twelve Weeks to Midnight Blue as part of Steve’s tour with Blackberry Book Tours, and they’ve kindly arranged this interview for us. 

Hi Steve. Welcome, and thank you for your willingness to answer a few questions.

  1. Have you always wanted to be a writer, and what inspired you to start writing?

My love of writing really started in high school, when I had a very unconventional English teacher who decided that one day a week would be dedicated to creative writing. We were free to write anything we wanted. He had a very loose point system where he decided how much effort it seemed we had put into a piece of writing. It was a glorious year. I wrote all kinds of things. It was only in college when I kept discovering there were major works of English literature I was expected to have already read but hadn’t — Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, and so on — that I realized, “oh, so that’s what we were supposed to be doing instead of writing!”

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Later I spent a fair amount of time writing very serious essays, poems, short stories, and unfinished novels. They were too self-conscious and self-important. I spent a lot of time obsessing over every word. I think they just collapsed under their own weight. So I left writing for a good decade or two — other than writing marketing copy in my day job – that is. 

And then, a few years ago, I started writing Kidventure just for fun. And that was the key. It really was fun to write. I kept telling myself, “this isn’t serious writing”, which gave me permission to just tell a story. I had a rule for myself, don’t go back and think of a better word. No dictionary or thesaurus allowed. Just write. Write like you’re telling someone this really fun story. And so I did. And the irony – of course – is that it’s much better writing once I’ve gotten rid of the hey look at me writing writer in my head. 

2. How do you come up with titles for your books?

The first book, Twelve Weeks To Midnight Blue, was the hardest. For one thing, I just started writing with no real outline. For the other books I’ve written since I’ve had meticulous outlines. But the first Kidventure book was more like, well, let’s just see what happens with the story. The first draft had lots of challenges and obstacles the characters encounter, which you see in the final version of the book. And from the very beginning, there was the premise that the main character, Chance, wanted to earn enough money to buy a bike, Midnight Blue. But what was missing was an overall structure to create tension and drive action.

A friend of mine read the first draft and said there needed to be more drama. Maybe the two main characters, Chance and Addie, need to get into more fights. But that didn’t feel right. Some of the brother-sister dynamic in the book comes from observing my own kids. Sure they squabble sometimes, but they’re really good friends too. I didn’t want to create drama out of thin air. There are enough books about dysfunctional families and damaged relationships. I want Kidventure to be inspiring and uplifting. Besides, there’s so much tension already built into running a business you don’t need to manufacture it: 

  • Will I make enough sales to pay my employees? 
  • Will I find enough new customers? 
  • Will the new hire work out? 
  • Will my costs exceed my revenue?

And then I had my aha! moment: what was missing was urgency. That’s when I came up with the headline: Chance needed to earn enough money to buy a bike by the end of the summer. And just like that, the title fell into place too.

3. I love the illustrations in your books. Who do your illustrations, and please explain the process until the final drawings?

It’s a team of freelance artists I work with. I put together design briefs for each illustration. They’re very detailed:

  • the point of view
  • how the characters are placed in relation to each other
  • what’s in the background, and
  • even what they’re wearing.

I like to obsess over the details. And then the artists always come back with an illustration that’s both strange and familiar. It doesn’t quite look like what I imagined, but I also recognize my characters in them. It’s quite wonderful, this feeling that I don’t completely own this world, these characters. As if my written story is just one version of this other fictional reality. The illustrations are another version. And – of course – the mental pictures each reader conjures in their own head are another. 

Sometimes in an early draft of the illustration, there are details that clearly don’t match the story (even after my comprehensive design briefs, there’s still lots of room for interoperation —apparently!). So I tell them to change those. Then there are those minor details that are slightly different than what’s in the story, and I have to decide if it’s worth going through yet another round of edits to change them. Sometimes I just leave them, which I think makes the illustrations more charming.

4. What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

Back in my very serious writing days, I had a very strong voice in my head that kept telling me not to mix genres: Yes, what you wrote there is funny, but it doesn’t belong in this particular work. Save it for something else. Or: why are you injecting autobiographical details into this essay? Maybe that should be in a different work. That sort of thing. The crotchety editor superintending my work got annoyed whenever there were too many tangents. And then, one day, someone told me: “Be you, no one else can write like you, and you shouldn’t write like anyone else”. Sounds simple and like a cliché, but I found it very liberating. As I thought about it, it’s true – my favourite authors are quirky. They do things “you’re not supposed to do”.

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Kidventure books are, therefore, very quirky. They are very much like me. At times there is an in-depth explanation of business concepts. Other times there’s just silliness and joking because that’s what I do with my kids. The dad in the story can be very sarcastic at times. But there’s also wrestling with ethical dilemmas. Real dilemmas that business owners face all the time, because they hold power as they’re making decisions that involve money, and because they make money through people, whether it’s customers or employees or partners, and those relationships carry responsibilities. And there are some sentimental moments where the main character thinks about his dad and everything it means being a son who wants to impress and outdo his father but also needs his dad’s advice and reassurance. 

My Kidventure books are a jumble of genres and tangents. I hope they’re half as fun to read as they are to write.

5. What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

This question makes me laugh. It reminds me of my college days when we were required to write a senior thesis to graduate. There was a lot of procrastination that year! There was this constant feeling of “I should be working on my thesis right now”, which led to numerous trips to office supply stores to buy different coloured index cards, file cabinets, sticky notes, notebooks, folders, and so on. Anything but, you know, actually sitting down and writing. Buying stuff felt like we were making progress like we were writing. But it’s not.

Good memories! I can remember as a student I also loved going to van Schaik’s and buying all these nice stationery! My dad wasn’t impressed with the bill, though!

During my very serious writing years, I bought fancy pens and nice journals and thick dictionaries and serious thesauri and special coffee mugs and all sorts of writing paraphernalia. But very little writing got done. So I’m not a fan of spending money as a writer. 

And as an entrepreneur, you now know the importance of curbing unnecessary expenses!

For the first two Kidventure books, I typed into a plain text pad on my old worn-out laptop where the letter E barely works (you have to really hit it hard, which is why in the first draft, there were lots of misspellings where words were missing an E). I don’t think you can write well if you’re too comfortable. At least I can’t.

If I take the question more broadly, I’d say the money spent on illustrations was money well spent. For one thing, it’s kind of a test: do you believe in your story enough to spend money on it? The illustrations add a nice touch to what is – after all – a children’s book. And they’re very useful when doing marketing.

Yes, for children’s books the illustrations are just as important as the story. Paying a professional for quality illustrations enhances the overall quality of the book, and helps to draw young readers into the story.

6. Many children today prefer playing video games and engaging in social media. They do not participate in outside activities like riding a bicycle very much. How do you think your book Twelve Weeks To Midnight Blue will inspire them to start a little business?

I hope it does inspire them. My wife and I made the decision a few years ago as parents to get rid of our TVs. There are no TVs or video games in our house. And it’s been really great. Our kids are much more engaged with the world and curious ever since. 

A really gutsy move! I think with peer pressure you probably had some push back from the kids until they’ve adapted and started enjoying the other more healthy activities you’ve engaged them in!

What I try to do with the Kidventure stories is show that business is, in fact, an adventure. The main character, Chance, has a very active imagination and sometimes daydreams as he’s working. He’s not riding a bike; he’s a knight on his trusty horse venturing out on a quest. When he’s shovelling snow, he imagines he’s looking for buried pirate treasure. And he comes up with funny names for the people he meets —customers, investors, advisors—so they become larger than life. The story keeps bordering on fantasy, and that’s a little bit by design.

Fantasy and imagination are such an important part of a child’s development. So many children expect to be entertained all the time, and never learn to use their imagination to create their own fantasy worlds.

But more seriously, I hope kids see that starting a business can be every bit as exciting as an imaginary adventure. It really is like going on a quest. You have a crazy goal and only a vague idea of how to accomplish it. You meet companions along the way and fight monsters. Only these monsters have names like Losing Money or Disappointing Customers. You gain experience along the way and level up and get better weapons, like better shovels or more pool cleaning nets. You find magic scrolls called business plans and Profit & Loss ledgers. And – of course – you accumulate treasure.

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The problem with video games is that they reward the pleasure centres in your brain when you complete a quest in much the same way that you feel a very satisfying sense of accomplishment in the real world when you reach a big goal. 

Slaying a pixelated monster and finding the dragon gold makes you feel like you really did something. On some level, your brain can’t tell the difference. Especially if you’re a kid. You haven’t actually accomplished anything real, but you feel like you have. Your desire to go on a quest and make a name for yourself is already satiated, so you don’t go out into the real world and slay real monsters. Because those are a lot harder. In real life, you lose a lot. Which also means the feeling of victory, when it finally comes, is that much sweeter.

Yes, Steve. This reward kids experience from accomplishments in a video game, is the very reason why playing them becomes so addictive.

I hope there are some kids out there who read Kidventure and think: that looks like fun! That’s the kind of quest I want to go on. I want to start my own business. 

7. Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers?

I’m excited to announce that Kidventure Book 2, There’s No Plan Like No Plan, is now available. Chance & Addie are back for a new adventure, this time shovelling snowy driveways in the winter. They think they know what they’re doing now that they are seasoned entrepreneurs. But they will discover shovelling snow in the winter is very different from cleaning pools in the summer.

I love the title – the contradiction between having a plan and no plan is bound to generate curiosity and entice kiddos to find out more!

Interesting tidbits:

1. Summer or winter? 

Love them both. And how great is it to long for one in the middle of the other…

2. Coffee or tea? 

Coffee – Lattes every morning.

3. Dog or cat? 

Dog. We have two very precocious labradors. Just waiting for them to grow out of the chew-everything puppy stage.

Labradors are such great dogs – energetic, funny, and so entertaining!

4. Morning person or night owl? 

Morning. Love the quiet of the early hours.

5. Beach Holiday or camping? 

Beach. Camping is great, but since moving to the mountains, we get nature all day, every day. So the beach is extra special.

6. Movie or book?

Book, of course.

7. Meat lover or vegetarian?

Meat. Preferably bacon-wrapped.

8. Introvert or extrovert? 

I’m an introvert that does an excellent impersonation of an extrovert.

9. Travel locally or internationally?

In my twenties, I was quite the globetrotter. But now, with 4 kids, I love taking road trips with them.

10. Text message or call? 

Text, for sure. Unless you’re an old friend, then a call is a real treat. But we’ll probably text first to set up a good time to call.

One last question: Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers?

I’m also happy to say I’m currently putting the finishing touches on Kidventure Book 3. So there will be more reading adventures coming soon.

Thanks again, Steve, for your honest answers to my questions. I find your goal of teaching children business skills admirable, and it is so important in the time we live in, where more people will have to start a business instead of relying on finding a job. Your books will give so many children an advantage as adults in starting and growing a profitable business.

Hi! I am Susan

Welcome to my adventure

Why Read or Rot?

I have started reading at the age of four. I can remember how I often read under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to sleep.

During my early school years, we visited the library once a week. I couldn’t pick out my new book fast enough! By the end of the period, I would have finished it already, leaving me with nothing to read for the rest of the week!

Growing up, Fridays was the highlight of my week. Dad would pack the whole family into the car, and off we go! You guessed right – to the library! We were a family of readers.

In my adult years, I’ve developed a variety of interests like technology, photography, gardening and even writing. But reading was and will always be a part of my life!

Reading for me is like breathing. If I cannot read, my soul will quietly rot away

Hi! I am Susan

Welcome to my adventure

Why Read or Rot?

I have started reading at the age of four. I can remember how I often read under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to sleep.

During my early school years, we visited the library once a week. I couldn’t pick out my new book fast enough! By the end of the period, I would have finished it already, leaving me with nothing to read for the rest of the week!

Growing up, Fridays was the highlight of my week. Dad would pack the whole family into the car, and off we go! You guessed right – to the library! We were a family of readers.

In my adult years, I’ve developed a variety of interests like technology, photography, gardening and even writing. But reading was and will always be a part of my life!

Reading for me is like breathing. If I cannot read, my soul will quietly rot away

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